Hopkinton -- Following the approval of zoning officials, the Ananda Church of Self-Realization and Retreat Center will proceed with plans to construct a new staff house on Tomaquag Road.
Zoning Board of Review members voted unanimously Thursday night to expand a special-use permit issued to the church two years ago that authorizes the facility to operate as a spiritual retreat. The expansion allows Ananda President and Minister Larry G. Rider and his wife Karen to build a three-bedroom house that will serve as their home on the 40-acre lot.
A house currently used on the property will be converted to a meeting space for retreat activities.
The board's decision effectively ends a standoff between retreat founders and several neighbors opposed to the church's expansion.
Building and Zoning Official Charles Mauti originally approved construction of the Rider's new home in February, but froze the permit after contractor Richard E. Coppa of 279 Tomaquag Road noted that the plan violated the terms of the original special-use permit and required the Riders to reapply for an extension through the zoning board.
Coppa subsequently distributed fliers to Tomaquag Road residents in April identifying the Ananda religion as a "cult" and its national leader J. Donald Walters "a fugitive of justice," evoking a lettered response from Ananda to neighbors refuting Coppa's claims.
Coppa told the board he is skeptical of the Riders' plan to limit their expansion with the addition of only one additional dwelling.
"I don't think there's going to be a single family residence there," he said. "I think there's going to be multiple families living under that residence, and I think that as a whole has a detrimental effect on my property...and on all the properties on the road. My fear is that...this compound will keep getting bigger and bigger. I think their ambitions are to go as big as they can go."
The church, which Rider said is financially supported by regional donors and from fees collected from retreat participants, holds large events once or twice a year that are cleared with Mauti. Because terms of the special-use permit only allow up to 10 guests to stay overnight at Ananda, participants who live outside Rhode Island usually make accommodations at local motels, Rider said.
Tim Hartmann of 337 Tomaquag Road said he agreed with Coppa.
"I share many of the concerns with Mr. Coppa because I don't want to have to do this every year," he said.
But zoning officials said they failed to see how the construction of the home is connected with an increase in retreat activities on the property. Any future expansion by Ananda would have to be considered as a land development issue by the Planning Board of Review, Mauti said.
Following the board's decision, Coppa said he was disappointed that the town has neglected to address his concerns with what he said are a number of building and fire code violations on the property.
"They (the town) have admitted that my concerns are legitimate," he said, drawing ire from Ananda supporters that slowly incited a shouting match on the steps of Town Hall. "They haven't remedied the violations, yet they continue to allow the expansion (of Ananda)."
Karen Rider said Coppa's assertions are "untruthful...exaggerations and lies."
"Mr. Coppa has been very adamant in his opposition," said Karen Rider. "It's based on future fears that we can't seem to alleviate. If you look at our land and the people that are abutting us...they are very much in favor of what we're doing and have written letters...saying they support what we do. They see us a service not just to individuals, but to the community."
Neighbors supportive of Ananda said the group has positively affected their lives. Edmund Hathaway, who lives across from the retreat center at 317 Tomaquag Road, said he uses the church frequently to meditate.
"I think the retreat center is a wonderful resource for the community," he said. "I would challenge anyone...to go up there any time of the day or night and they'll find nothing but a place of peace and solitude."
The Riders said they were pleased with the board's decision.
"I think it was a fair decision," said Karen Rider. "We have hopes for the future that we can help anyone that has negative opinions about it [Ananda] to change those opinions by our actions and by our truthfulness. We don't have to be policed. We're truthful people and we keep our word, and we're trying to do something that is good and uplifting for the community."
The Riders founded the church in Hopkinton in 1999 on land that belonged to Larry Rider's father. Ananda practitioners hold the belief that by practicing Kriya yoga, a meditative exercise, one may uplift his or her consciousness to find a connection to God. The faith has a worldwide membership of about 2,500 people.